Plane truths making flyers weep

India has seen the highest surge in domestic airfares in the world.
Image used for representational purposes
Image used for representational purposes

Fly to cry. With flyers choking airports either for business or on holiday, an oligopoly of domestic airlines is making passengers weep. India is the world's fastest growing aviation market. Its half a dozen airlines operate about 700 aircraft, which carry about five lakh passengers on 3,000 flights daily. But they literally fly cattle class. To begin with, they are cash cows, forced to pay through their nose for the ticket and everything on board. The so-called budget airlines have become callous enough to offload flyers whose hand baggage is just a wee bit over the limit.

Though fast travel has grown wings, travellers face inferior service, rude behaviour by ground staff and crew, and threats of ejection if they insist on quality service. Recently, even a celebrity like Kapil Sharma, India’s most successful comedian, had to lament for being made to wait in an airport bus. He posted on X, "First you made us wait in the bus for 50 [minutes], and now your team is saying pilot is stuck in traffic. What, really? We [were] supposed to take off by 8 pm and it’s 9:20, still there is no pilot in cockpit. Do you think these 180 passengers will fly in IndiGo again? Never.” The next day, another group flying from Delhi to Patna on SpiceJet were stranded at Delhi airport for seven hours because their plane didn’t arrive. Ever since the Tatas acquired Air India, its siblings Vistara and Air Asia have rationalised routes in such a way that choices for flyers have shrunk. For example, Air India has reduced its number of flights to certain lucrative destinations so that Vistara can charge higher fares.

Indian fliers have been hit by a double whammy: rising fares and falling quality. Indian skies have become a firmament of profiteering by airlines, over which the government and its regulatory agencies have no control. This aerial success is touted as the sign of a rising New India, but quality and reliability have hit engine snags. With many airlines such as Jet and Go First having crashed due to regulatory failure and financial fraud, airlines’ gain is passengers’ pain because of seat shortage. More than 100 aircraft are grounded for technical reasons. Yet the number of passengers per aircraft has flown up enormously. This rising gap between demand and supply has enabled airlines to torture the very passengers who are their bread and butter.

India has seen the highest surge in domestic airfares in the world. The Airports Council International Asia-Pacific claimed in its latest reports that there has been a 41 percent hike in the airfare in India, followed by the UAE (34 percent), Singapore (30 percent) and Australia (23 percent). After the Air Corporations Act was repealed in 1994, the government stopped regulating airfares. Airlines were given a free hand to charge reasonable fares in proportion to costs. Since then, airlines have flourished through exploitative pricing even during a crisis in the industry.

It is no wonder that InterGlobe Aviation (IndiGo) declared its highest ever net profit of Rs 3,090 crore for the first quarter of 2023-24 against a loss of Rs 1,064 crore in the same period last year. Profits soared a staggering 236 percent between April and June. IndiGo is firmly in the aviation cockpit, occupying the maximum airspace. Its fleet of 320 aircraft flies six out of every ten passengers daily on 1,900 flights connecting over 110 destinations. Over the past decade, it has acquired a market share of 60 percent. Despite around 50 of its aircraft grounded due to various reasons, its load factor has doubled in a year. In 2021-22 it flew 4.67 crore passengers; in 2022-23 this rose to 8.52 crore. Evidently, it has milked its shrunk fleet by rationalising destinations, thereby charging extra for 60 percent of seats per airplane including the first few rows, seats with more leg space, and for every aisle and window seats. Passengers have to tighten their seat belts by paying more than Rs 16,000 per ticket for a one-way, one-hour flight. Complaints galore have been registered with IndiGo for changing timings at the last moment, refusing booked meals and keeping flyers waiting for long hours. Though it gets the price for punctuality, it made almost Rs 500 crore profit from selling soggy sandwiches to hapless passengers. Even then, its credibility is sky high after placing the largest aircraft order.

If IndiGo dictates terms, Vistara, owned by the Tatas, distracts with image. With 63 aircraft (four grounded) it markets itself as a luxury airline. After Jet Airways shut shop, it is the preferred option for the rich and famous. While its services are of the highest standards, its track record is cloudy. It has been exploiting its niche monopoly by rationalising routes, which has led to seat shortage on less profitable routes. It charges as high as Rs 45,000 for a one-way, 100-minute flight. Its attractive offers and frequent flier schemes are a sham because whenever flyers try to redeem their miles, the airline keeps them waiting for months. Yet it flies one out of every tenth passenger in the country.

Spice Jet, with 63 aircraft (32 currently inactive) and 9 percent market share, maybe on the verge of collapse. Yet it made big profits: Rs 204.56 crore in the first quarter of 2023 as against a net loss of Rs 788.83 crore a year ago. The reason? Its domestic load factor was 90 percent till June. SpiceJet's revenue per seat per kilometre was up 26 percent. Its highest profit in four years came from a drop in the number of flights. Its future is uncertain and its loss will be IndiGo's gain.

Air India's sarkari legacy is responsible for the current aviation nightmare. Once an epitome of class and luxury, with chic stewardesses (many tycoons married some of them) serving exotic cuisine, it treated its passengers like royalty. Becoming a government company killed its allure. While it floundered under corruption and inefficiency, other private airlines grabbed its space. Now, the 18-year-old IndiGo has almost thrice the number of aircraft than Air India's 128. Air India has improved since the Tatas took over and its revenues have skyrocketed. It has ordered over 500 new planes.

But the comfort of Indian fliers is unlikely to take off in the near future since demand will grow faster than supply. Letting market forces unleash mayhem would lead to a massive backlash in the long run. Flyers stuck on the runway of corporate greed must realise they have bought a one-way ticket to hell. Quality is guaranteed to be a pie in the sky.

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The New Indian Express